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We reject that recommendation totally. I remember when I was a young lad—I am sure that you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, will have similar memories—going to the cinema and watching western films. Some of the better films, including ones starring Gene Autry and Roy Rogers—I hope that I am bringing nostalgia back for you—showed saloons that stopped people at the swinging doors and asked that they left their guns at the doors. I wish that the Government had taken notice of that particular habit and asked all Members to leave their electrical devices at the door of this Chamber, on the basis that they could cause almost as much trouble as guns in the hands of cowboys in the old west.

Let me read the recommendation. It is on multi-tasking. It says:

I have rarely seen a hand-held device that did not cause disturbance. People forget to turn them off and the things go off inadvertently—we heard of a case of that earlier. Indeed, I have been guilty of the same crime and you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, were kind enough to recognise that I was a new Member and treated me with great gentleness.

Sir Peter Soulsby: May I suggest that the hon. Gentleman cannot be particularly observant? Were he to have been more observant, he would have noticed on many occasions Members, no doubt with the Speaker or Deputy Speaker turning a blind eye, using such hand-held devices in the Chamber. Indeed I saw a prominent member of his own Front-Bench team using such a device comparatively recently. During an earlier debate, one Front-Bench Member was using one for a good 10 minutes. They were doing so discreetly and caused no disturbance to anyone. Indeed, they did so without the hon. Gentleman noticing.

Mr. Binley: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that comment. I will refer to it a little later because I think that he is absolutely wrong in his assertion that the devices do not disturb. Not only do they disturb, but on occasions they stop participation. That is the point. What is this Chamber for? Is it for Members to
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participate, or is it for them to come here in a rather ad hoc fashion to do their homework, or to answer correspondence?

Mr. Stewart Jackson (Peterborough) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that our constituents will be astonished if the amendment is defeated? Given that we receive unprecedented financial support for secretarial and administrative help, there will be astonishment that hon. Members cannot organise their time appropriately so that they do not have to be checking e-mails when they should be holding the Executive to account, doing their job properly, listening and participating in important debates in this House?

Mr. Binley: That is the very point that I will make for the next three or four minutes—only for that long, I hope, in view of the fact that others wish to speak.

Mr. Redwood: Does my hon. Friend think that the Government may have an ulterior motive? Perhaps what they have in mind are controllers outside this House who will watch debates and send messages through to those who cannot think of their own interventions and questions because they want to stage-manage rather more.

Mr. Binley: My right hon. Friend has immense experience and is hinting that that may already have happened. Pagers have been used to give people hints on how to speak as well as act. That is not what this Chamber should be about.

The Committee’s advice on multi-tasking related to more effective participation. It suggested that Members had called for the use of hand-held instruments and electronic instruments because it might make them more

Is that the purpose of the Chamber? Much of the massive Palace of Westminster is taken up with offices, yet we want to turn this place into an extension of those offices. That is nonsense.

Simon Hughes: There is all the difference in the world between getting a message, which has been permitted for a long time by using fairly antediluvian pagers, and communicating by e-mail. It would be unreasonable to suggest that people could not continue to get a message. That is different from spending our time communicating electronically when we should be here concentrating.

Mr. Binley: As I understand it, we have always received messages, normally in note form. It is important that that should continue. But should we really have the ability to have conversations with others outside when the prime objective of the Chamber is to be the debating centre of the nation? Do we really want television viewers seeing rows of people acting like secretaries in early 1950s films; great rows of MPs all bashing away on laptops? Is that what the Chamber is about? My argument will be that it is not. This is the debating Chamber of the nation and people should
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come to take part in that process, not be involved in so-called multi-tasking. How widely does multi-tasking extend?

Mr. Kevan Jones: I am really enjoying the hon. Gentleman’s contribution. For someone elected in 2005, he gives the impression that he has been here a long time. It is refreshing that the Conservative party can still select individuals such as him. Does he agree that we are not talking about a row of secretaries? The mind boggles at the thought of the hon. Gentleman sitting with a typewriter anywhere.

Mr. Binley: My mind boggles too, Mr. Deputy Speaker, which is why I hope that you will support the amendment to ensure that that does not happen. May I also thank you for your kindness? You have been kind since I came to this place. Bringing a little wisdom and experience is not a bad thing. It seems that you are supporting even more of my ilk—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. The hon. Gentleman is addressing the Chair, but none of those things can be true of me in these circumstances.

Mr. Binley: I understand totally, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Let us get back to the business of what this House is about.

We are talking about electronic devices not disturbing people. I have seen occasions when such devices have vibrated in people’s pockets and the people vibrate as a result. Up they jump, and they fiddle about, putting hands in one pocket after another until they find their electronic device, by which time, Mr. Deputy Speaker is glaring at them and the whole House is looking at them. If that does not disturb and break up concentration, I do not know what does.

Furthermore, hand-held devices are becoming more all-purpose. They were initially simply telephones, but they are now mini-computers, providing the ability not only to communicate, as I have said, but to record, to take photographs and even to take video film. How does anybody distinguish between someone simply looking at an e-mail and their being involved in those particular activities? I put it to hon. Members that they would not want to have a video camera, under the guise of a telephone, pointed at them in some of their quieter, slightly more relaxed moments, and for the recording to be repeated and distributed on a cheap compact disc during an election in their constituencies. Such activity might arise if we were to be so lax as to allow hand-held devices in here. We should all be careful about that particular ability and about the growth in the functions of hand-held devices. They are contained in a small package and cover a number of activities, many of which we would not wish to see in action in this House. I maintain that we would not be able to stop such activities once such devices were able to be used on a permanent basis.

May I conclude by making the point that this Chamber is, as I have said before, about the debating of issues on behalf of the nation? It is a representative Chamber; indeed, we have a representative democracy. That is the very description of the parliamentary democracy in which we work. I want to ensure that this
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place remains at the heart of that process, as a debating Chamber. I want it to be more widely viewed by the people of the nation. I also want them to be able to be more involved with their Members of Parliament—their representatives—in the argument, but that should not occur when we are in the Chamber.

This Chamber is where the elected representatives of Parliament make their points. They do so not as delegates or as members of a political party primarily, but as the elected representatives of the people of their constituency. They are chosen because they are deemed to have wisdom and experience which, if they use it independently, can make a worthwhile contribution to this place. I do not want a situation in which every time somebody wonders what he has to say, he looks at a hand-held telephone, or every time a Whip thinks that something is going wrong, they put a message through and 25 Labour or 25 Conservative Members then look at it and act differently.

Such situations concern me immensely, but I certainly do not want an opportunity for us to be filmed without our knowledge. I am not talking about the official process of filming, but about hand-held videos that are so small that one cannot tell the difference between them and a telephone. For that reason, I want all these instruments stopped at the Door. I want to take a lesson from the wild west: do not have pistols in saloons because they are dangerous; do not have electronic devices in the Chamber because they could be equally dangerous.

3.29 pm

Sir Peter Soulsby (Leicester, South) (Lab): I hesitate to follow the authentic voice of the luddite tendency, but I feel provoked to respond to some of the points made by the hon. Member for Northampton, South (Mr. Binley).

The Modernisation Committee’s recommendations are very modest, especially where they deal with the use of modern technology by hon. Members in this Chamber. It is not suggested that hon. Members should be able to bring in their desktop PCs, or even their laptops, but that they be permitted to do what many already do while Mr. Speaker and the Deputy Speakers turn a blind eye.

Therefore, I repeat what I said in an intervention on the previous speaker. I shall not embarrass anyone, but on two occasions in this debate I have noticed two Members on the Opposition Front Bench using such devices. I mention them only as an example, as they used them discreetly and appropriately, and caused no trouble or disturbance at all to those around them. It is quite clear that they were multi-tasking, as described in the report, and keeping in touch with the world outside.

I suggest that hon. Members who come into this Chamber should not turn their backs on the modern world and the communications systems that are used in it. I believe that it is perfectly appropriate for hon. Members to be permitted, openly and overtly, to continue to do what many do already—that is, to use such devices in a discreet and appropriate way in this Chamber. If this matter comes to a vote, I very much
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hope that the House will reject overwhelmingly the calls from what I have described as the luddite tendency that we turn our backs on the appropriate use of modern communication technology.

I want to make only two other points arising from the debate. First, I echo what my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones) said about the excitement that many of us felt at the prospect of regional Select Committees. He gave examples of the bodies that exist already at regional level for which there is no adequate mechanism for accountability. Their numbers are legion, and they exist in every region of the country. A very significant accountability gap exists, and the proposals for regional Ministers and associated regional Select Committees are an attempt to address that problem.

As I did in an earlier intervention, I want to encourage the Leader of the House not to be discouraged by the very understandable concerns that have been expressed about the resource implications of regional Select Committees. I hope that she will recognise that they would fill that very significant accountability gap, but that they would need to have the necessary resources behind them.

I also agree with another point made by my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham—that regional Grand Committees would be a poor substitute for regional Select Committees. With only a small number of members, regional Select Committees would be clearly focused and well resourced, and able to hold to account the multitude of regional bodies that at present are not properly accountable to this House.

My final point has to do with the Modernisation Committee’s proposals for topical debates, as reflected in the very welcome measures brought forward today by the Leader of the House. I understand the arguments made by various hon. Members today that the subjects for those debates should be chosen by ballot and, superficially at least, there is much to be said for that approach. However, the Modernisation Committee considered the matter carefully and ultimately concluded that the proposal that the selection should be made effectively by the Leader of the House, in consultation with the usual channels on both sides, was an appropriate mechanism.

Initially, that mechanism would be employed for an experimental period. The House would be able to see how it was working but, as has been noted, other mechanisms would be put in place to ensure that the Leader of the House reported on the subjects proposed to her, and that she was held accountable for the selections that she made. The suggestion that a ballot be used for that purpose was rejected because of the nature of the debates that it is hoped will take place under the proposal.

Mr. Shepherd: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman—a distinguished member of the Modernisation Committee—for giving way. Although there was a vote on the proposal in the Committee, does not he think it was determined by those who owed loyalties elsewhere? The Committee is stuffed with Parliamentary Private Secretaries, former deputy Chief Whips and representatives of the Executive, so the two vital individuals who voted for a ballot were excluded. That is not careful consideration—it is the might of the majority.

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Sir Peter Soulsby: I assure the hon. Gentleman that he and the colleague to whom he referred are not the only members of the Committee who can think for themselves. I and a number of others can do that, too, and we gave careful consideration to what initially seemed an attractive option. However, given that the subjects for topical debates are to be matters of

we concluded that the proposed mechanism would ensure that was the case—and if it does not, the House will have the opportunity to reconsider the process.

John Bercow: Notwithstanding the savage ad hominem attack of my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd) on our right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire (Mr. Knight), and the comments of the hon. Member for Leicester, South (Sir Peter Soulsby) about people having a mind of their own and being willing to express their opinions, I put it to him in all seriousness that it is not simply a question of Members being independent: for the sake of the name of our democracy, it is important that they should be seen to be independent. Therein lies the problem in having Parliamentary Private Secretaries who palpably owe loyalty to the Government, upon whose payroll they sit, also sitting on the Modernisation Committee. Never the twain shall meet, I suggest to the hon. Gentleman.

Sir Peter Soulsby: I suspect that if I pursue the hon. Gentleman’s suggestion at the length he invites me to do, Mr. Deputy Speaker, you would pull me up short and suggest that it was not something for debate this afternoon.

The proposals made by the Leader of the House in response to the Modernisation Committee are important steps to re-empower Back Benchers and reinvigorate the Chamber, although no doubt many Members want further steps to be taken. However, although we may want to go further in future, that should not prevent us from supporting the proposals today.

3.37 pm

Mr. Greg Knight (East Yorkshire) (Con): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Leicester, South (Sir Peter Soulsby). He and I started our political careers about 30 years ago, sitting on opposite sides of the Leicester city council chamber. It is still a pleasure to be sitting opposite him.

I agreed with most of the hon. Gentleman’s comments, although I did not agree with his description of my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, South (Mr. Binley) as a luddite. I would put it differently. My hon. Friend alluded to the film industry to demonstrate his point; if he were a film mogul, he would probably be the chairman of Nineteenth Century Fox.

I thank the Leader of the House for providing time for the debate. This is important business, dealing with reports from the Modernisation Committee, of which I am a member, and the Procedure Committee, which I chair. It will come as no surprise to the House when I say that I want to focus primarily on the Procedure Committee’s report. I thank its members, of all parties,
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for giving up their time to serve on one of the least glamorous but nevertheless key Committees of the House.

The Leader of the House said that she wanted more plain language to be used in our Standing Orders. I can reveal to the House that the issue is on the agenda for future meetings of the Procedure Committee, and we shall look at it in depth.

The Procedure Committee report on early-day motions and petitions was published on 22 May, and brought together two inquiries, during which the Committee took evidence from Members and House officials. We visited the Scottish Parliament to look at its petition system, and held discussions with officials responsible for administering the No. 10 e-petitions website.

May I start by making a few remarks about early-day motions? They are often criticised. Members claim that there are too many of them and that many are trivial and tabled on unsuitable matters for debate. It is said that some are initiated by outside bodies and pressure groups. A number of Members told the Committee that they took the view that early-day motions were parliamentary graffiti. However, early-day motions actually allow Members to do several things that they could not otherwise do. They are an extremely flexible parliamentary procedure. They can draw attention to an issue that affects a single community, or even a single individual. They can also form part of an important regional or national campaign. Their popularity is evidence of their success and usefulness. The Procedure Committee was not persuaded that there were good grounds for limiting their number or scope. We believed that the disadvantages of imposing a new restriction, especially to individual Back Benchers, would outweigh the benefits.

The Committee went on to consider whether there should be a mechanism to allow some early-day motions to be debated. Of course, many early-day motions are not intended to be for debate, but are used for other purposes, such as to call attention to the work of a body—often a local charity—or individual. If some early-day motions were to be eligible for debate, it would be necessary to distinguish between those that were debatable and non-debatable.

There are various ways in which debatable early-day motions could be chosen for debate, but the Committee concluded that they all had disadvantages. The most popular suggestion was that the number of signatures received by an early-day motion should be the trigger for a debate. However, as someone who has served in the Whips Office, I am well aware that if we were to introduce such a rule, right hon. and hon. Members would be put under pressure not so much by the public, but each party’s Whips Office, to sign a motion that was embarrassing to the party on the other side of the House and thus trigger a debate on the Floor. Such a system would permanently exclude minority parties from the opportunity of having an early-day motion debated. A large number of early-day motions that attract support from hon. Members on both sides of the House are those with which it is difficult to disagree, which would thus be unlikely to give rise to a lively or worthwhile debate.

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